The moment my friend Jesse sent me an early download of Tuareg musician Bombino, I fell in love. As I told him, I think I was Tuareg in a future life -- there's something about the scope of North African music, Gnawa and Tuareg to Malian blues and Nubian folk, that has dominated my music listening over the past few years. Thankfully Tinariwen pushed open a door few in America had acknowledged, thus beginning a swell of incredible Saharan artists to saunter through. Bombino's first international record, Agadez (Cumbancha), may be the best of this crop (though Tamikrest's newest, Toumastin, is giving it some heat). While lacking the textures of Tinariwen or Toumast, this is more appropriately to be seen as a one-man show, even considering that his backing band is tremendous. Given that the album has spent most of this week sitting atop the iTunes World Music charts, I'm not the only one feeling this way.
The nine-minute "Ivat Idounia Ayasahen" is the proper place to start. Bombino's animated guitar playing is enthralling. The predominant amount of this track is spent listening to him solo, a steady, easy rhythm creating a trance-like foundation indicative of many North African music forms. This combination -- a hypnotic percussion rhythm with a long history of ritual use along with a modern fascination for men like Jimi Hendrix and the electric guitar -- is what makes Tuareg music so hard to stop listening to. Long before the protests shaking up bordering countries like Egypt and Tunisia, Malian officials have fought wars with these indigenous nomads. Unromanticizing the situation: like Rom culture, Tuaregs are travelers as much (if not more so) by force than choice. Thus exists an old spirit to this music, with Bombino representing one of the most wizened. Suffering and hardship is known to produce beauty, and while he was a bit young to partake in the first revolution (in which Tinariwen members battled), his connection to the culture of resistance is strong and deep. Agadez is a spiritual and political masterpiece for his people.
For a better look at the life of Bombino, don't miss the companion documentary, Agadez, the Music & Rebellion, by Ron Wyman. The below video is from this beautiful movie, with the album being pulled from such sessions. "Tabsakh Dalet" represents the more subdued acoustic side of Bombino, but still captures the magic of his sound. Likewise, the man is featured as Group Bombino in the Guitars From Agadez series (Sublime Frequencies), with a few of the songs from here re-recorded for widespread release, along with some great rusty and rugged live performance audio.
Speaking of electric guitars and rusty audio, another Saharan collection, Group Doueh (Doo-Way), is set to tour the US in support of its newest, Zayna Jumma (Sublime Frequencies). Forgoing any sense of the warm production value associated with the aforementioned bands, this album is a raw look at the rock future of the saharoui roots sound. The back cover of the album says it all: guitarist/bandleader Salmou Bamaar stands in a colorfully decorated tent, flanked by a drum kit, guitar amp, keyboards and, well, safe to say antiquated television and computer. Sunlight breaks through the mesh tapestries acting as a ceiling. The band and the music its members create are beautifully rustic and unapologetically tribal. Three women serve as the rhythm section, with a fourth playing the ardin, a wonderfully elaborate cross between a kora and fiddle. Its base is a drum, with its strings making the most manic buzz imaginable. The sound it creates is immediately recognized as North African, predominantly by escaping the confines of any sonic relationship to melody known to the rest of mankind, much in the way that Chinese opera singers do things with their voices that seem humanly impossible. Set against that drum kit and a barrage of wah-wah pedals, along with the usual hypnotic vocal lines, this is a fine album if you're ready for analog, uniquely geographical and unquestioningly fun to produce.
Since this has become a column of guitars, it would be criminal to not include a stunning compilation of Malian blues-rock from a relatively unknown figure on that scene, Sorry Bamba. Volume One: 1970-1979 (Thrill Jockey) captures a decade and ten of this bandleader and native of Mopti, who formed his first group in 1957 at age 19. Opening the flap jacket, a two-panel photo of the skunked-hair Bamba -- his white strip is trademark -- surrounded by kinsmen in tribal headdresses and skirts, woven cords of seashells hanging from various limbs, jumps out. Bamba is holding a drum, but it is his voice that makes the biggest impact -- though, to be honest, Lassiné Douno's guitar work on "Yayaroba" and Mamadou Koko Dembélé's six-string action on "Boro" and "Gambari" are what keep this album on repeat.
National orchestra music on this level rivals other state African bands, such as Guinea's Bembeya Jazz and Senegal's Orchestra Baobab. Bamba's poetic talk-sing style on "Gambari" throws a headnod to the griot tradition, Africa's ancestral forebears of hip-hop, and the deep groove and Babma's flute solo on the love song "Astan Kelly" features the sweetest melodies represented. The press release puts forward the notion that Bamba's catalog is severely underrepresented in Mali's rich history. The label produced this collection to put an end to that trend, and after over a dozen listens to this fine album, I'd have to agree.
Sorry Bamba might be a new name, but Senegalese mbalax singer Yossou N'Dour probably is not. The first time I heard the man was singing back-up harmonies on Peter Gabriel's monster hit "In Your Eyes," then again eight years later alongside Neneh Cherry on the AIDS awareness track,"7 Seconds." N'Dour's relationship with the Western music world has always been solid; at the same time, he has a habit of creating records that feature juggernaut hits amidst a field of forgettable songs. His latest, a tribute of sorts to reggae, Dakar-Kingston (Emarcy), is no different. Paying homage to the one Nesta, N'Dour takes on "Redemption Song." The result is prime for adult contemporary radio, though not much else; it quickly falls into the obscure bin of "Hey, I got a Marley song, too" that many others have attempted and failed at. No mind, because his duet with Patrice Bart-Williams, "Joker," is among N'Dour's finest moments ever. When he keeps it closer to Senegal and injects shades of reggae, this cross-continental escapade works. The downside occurs when he tries to fully get his Rasta on. Like Gilberto Gil and his Kaya N'Gan Daya, N'Dour will best put this one behind him. Slide a few tracks into your playlist and delete the rest. Then go back to Egypt for the masterpiece you need from this otherwise exceptional artist.